“It is really satisfying to make something of the raw material of your life”
Michael Winter was a striking presence and he balanced practical writing tips with humour and interesting anecdotes at Hamilton’s Grit Lit festival. Approximately 20 individuals enjoyed his workshop on writing reality into fiction yesterday. As the author of 7 novels, he described this practice as exciting and a “satisfying way as a human being to make sense of experiences”.
He shared that English is the only language which makes the distinction between fiction and non-fiction and that there are “poo pooers” who feel that all fiction should come from the imagination. He disagrees and shares that “writing about your life, your experiences is not confessional but an inquiry into the world”. Winter tends to incorporate stories about his own life, the people in his life and stories that others have told him. He shared other authors who had incorporated real life including Hemingway (A Moveable Feast) and F. Scott Fitzgerald, discussing how authors can transplant details like today’s weather into their own story.
Winter reinforced the importance of keeping a notebook and had the participants chuckling as he pulled out and espoused the benefits of the simple bank book. He had everyone laughing as he shared that he takes these bank books from the ATMs in Newfoundland where they are still left for customers to update their bank balances. He acknowledged how nice moleskin notebooks are yet he feels that they leave authors pressured to write neatly, with the perfect pen and can become a barrier to jotting down ideas and information. He carries this little bank book in his pocket to collect ideas and scribble down thoughts as they occur to him. He shared an anecdote walking his dog in Hamilton. He saw a man walking across the street with his arms crossed and was shocked when the arms started to bark revealing that the man was carrying a small dog. He jotted this event in his book and will save it to possibly incorporate into a future story.
He had the group laughing when he talked about all his characters getting into predicaments and then finding themselves in the kitchen plugging in the kettle for tea or how his antagonists always end up going into a room to think. He said that it took years for him to figure out why his characters took these actions. He finally realized that he was writing about his own life.
“Enough cups of tea have been drunk in fiction!”
Winter admits that his friends and family end up being in his books. An aunt recognized herself and was happy yet others may not appreciate that that he tend to write about them “because they are interesting”. He says that sometimes he feels that he has become “a spy in the house of love”. He has frequently written about his brother who drives a cement truck in Edmonton and found it interesting which stories touched a nerve with him. His brother had not read one of his books yet when his friend commented on it. His brother then borrowed it from the library and told him never to write about him again unless he wanted “a punch to the head from which you may not recover”. Ultimately, Winter does not want to hurt others and the discussion with his brother was a difficult thing. He acknowledges that “people do not want to be exposed” and as a strategy he has tried to cover his tracks. The challenge with covering your track is that even if no one else knows who he is referencing, that person knows but “in the end, if you want to be a friend of mine, you will have to realize I do that”.
- When discussing writing real life he provided two view points on hindsight calling it “the death of drama” unless you “use it in a way that is interesting”.
- It can be to write in the first tense when it is easy to “get chained in the moment”.
- Writing from the 3rd person viewpoint (an example Anna Karenina by Tolstoy)
- It is helpful to switch perspectives using dialogue to transfer into the thoughts of another character.
- Helpful ways to break the monotony of past tense are to add dialogue, add the universal truth of landscape or to add psychic distance (which he compared to moving the camera focus).
- Use promise and delay to keep the writer’s interest.
- Wait to add dialogue until there are at least 3 lines of text.
- Write the opposite of what you are trying to describe (instead of talking about how dark it is, comment on the light at the base of a door; talk about the afterlife instead of death.
- He spoke about how difficult it is to write a good cancer story and challenges to write an interesting beach story yet combining the two may keep the reader engaged. He described these as pivotal stories.
- In life, he described that 92% is good yet may not be interesting and that the 8% may be bad and may provide the basis for a story that others want to read.
“The reader feels engaged in the exhaust fumes of your realizations about life”
Winter moved to Newfoundland with his parents when he was 3 years old. He revealed that his mother had wanted to come to New York City yet they ended up living in Newfoundland. He spent time as child watching is dad tie flies for fishing which he described as the most monotonous, boring and tedious thing yet he enjoyed the time together because his dad would tell stories about when he was a kid which he has been able to use in his writing.
Michael Winter has some very interesting friends. He referred to the late Alistair McLeod (No Great Mischief) as well as Lisa Moore (February, Caught). Moore has turned the tables on him and he has been written about in one of her stories in a way that was making fun of her friend of 30 years. He noted “I’d be lying if I said it did not hurt a little bit”. He has shared his work in writing circles with these friends.
After hearing about Yann Martel’s process of using envelopes as an outline, I was able to ask Winter about his writing process. Although he says that there is no right or wrong way, he has never written with an outline. He says it sounds like a good idea but that:
“If I knew what the story was, I wouldn’t really be interested in writing it”
The workshop was fast-paced and Michael Winter shared many interesting anecdotes and helpful information in the 90 minute session. The participants took notes, laughed and had time to ask questions. Winter took the time to talk to participants, signing a couple of his novels and posing for pictures at the end.
I have left feeling inspired, with tips that will help me with my writing and a signed copy of Minister Without Portfolio which was part of the 2016 Canada Reads contest. It was fantastic to enjoy an afternoon as part of the Grit Lit Festival in Hamilton!